PLOT Superhero king of high-tech African nation fights usurper.
CAST Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
RATED PG-13 (prolonged sequences of action violence, and a brief rude gesture)
BOTTOM LINE Shakespeare meets James Bond in this highly anticipated movie, which his theaters on Feb. 16.
With less humor but no less family drama than the recent Marvel-movie predecessors “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” this first film starring comics’ first black superhero is as political as it is fanciful. While ultimately an action-adventure, “Black Panther” also serves as an intelligent if broad debate between revolutionary rhetoric and the responsibilities of leadership. And to their great credit, the filmmakers strike a balance between such heady issues and highly imaginative set pieces involving everything from remotely piloted cars and jets to underground maglev trains and armored rhinos.
Introduced in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), the Black Panther is the ceremonial guise of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), new monarch of the futuristic and secretive African nation Wakanda. The king is bequeathed enhanced strength, speed and agility through a special heart-shaped herb, and gets a cool panther-themed, bulletproof bodysuit and a cadre of royal bodyguards led by Okoye (Danai Gurira, making her Michonne from “The Walking Dead” look like a walking wimp).
When a chunk of Wakanda’s powerful metal, vibranium, is sold on the black market by arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (a scene-stealing Andy Serkis), it could change the global balance of power. It definitely gives director and co-writer Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”) and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (“American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”) the opportunity for James Bond homages, with a tuxedoed T’Challa infiltrating an underground casino, using gadgets supplied by his own homegrown Q, sister Shuri (breakout star Letitia Wright).
Meanwhile, through a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, a former U.S. black-ops warrior nicknamed Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) lays claim to the throne — and Wakanda’s super-science weapons, which he’d use to conquer Africa’s old colonizers and enslavers, that is, much of the world.
Jordan’s charismatic, populist Killmonger has a valid point, but like many revolutionaries takes it too far. Countering him, in the less showy role of a dignified and compassionate leader, Boseman successfully embodies the inner strength to do what he can, sacrifice what he must, and nonetheless treat his opponent with respect and not bombast.
The movie fills that smart thematic framework with a naturalistic landscape of farmers and shepherds in the birthplace of humanity, living alongside a Tomorrowland city — itself as much a character as any of its people, which also include the Panther’s mother (Angela Bassett), his chief adviser (Forest Whitaker), and his ex-lover and top spy (Lupita Nyong’o). Coogler and company effectively envision a self-contained society where competing tribes (mostly) unite under a king caught between protecting the nation’s security and wanting his country to be part of the worldwide community.
As with its balance between political discourse and comic-book superheroics, the movie rings true with family dynamics that can change history. Leaders are only human, the movie reminds us, and humans have a responsibility to each other. Superhumans, of course, have a responsibility to entertain us, and that works well here, too.